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How to Paint Your Guitar

Kevin Ott
Electric guitar on table

Properly painting a guitar requires care and patience to both get the paint job right and protect every area of your guitar while you're doing it. These steps will guide you through the process.

Materials Needed

Make sure you have these materials on hand:

  • Drop cloths
  • Paint mask (to avoid breathing toxic fumes)
  • Basic set of screwdrivers and Allen wrenches
  • Aerosol primer
  • Paint (either polyurethane, polyester, or nitrocellulose)
  • Clear lacquer
  • Sandpaper (variety of coarseness)
  • Polishing cloth
  • Hot air gun
  • Paint scraper

Steps for Painting Your Guitar

These steps will lead you through the common stages of painting a guitar.

1. Find a Well-Ventilated Work Area

It's crucial that you do the work in well-ventilated areas where paint fumes won't build up or rise into your house. After you've found a location (even if you have to set up outside to protect people in the house), set up a table or a space on the floor with your tools within easy access. If you're feeling really ambitious about ventilation you can build a cheap paint booth that directs fumes outside like this guy did.

2. Strip All Hardware Off

The first major step involving your guitar will be to remove all hardware such as strings, neck, pick guard, knobs, pickups and electronics.

Note: this process will involve removing electronics and wires, which require soldering when you re-install them. If you're not comfortable with this kind of work, you can have a guitar shop remove and re-install the parts for you.

3. Remove the Old Paint

Take your hot air gun to heat the old lacquer while using the paint scraper to scrape it off. Use a coarse 100-grit sandpaper to get rid of any remaining paint.

4. Prime the Guitar

Use a light colored or clear primer if you'll be using light colored paint. Use a darker primer for darker paints. Grab a can of primer and shake it. Spray the guitar body with a light coat, keeping a distance of about a foot or foot and a half. Wait 10 to 20 minutes before applying a second light coat. Wait again, then apply a third light coat. Applying a series of light coats is better than applying one really thick coat.

5. Smooth Out the Wood (After It Dries a Few Days)

Give the primer ample time to dry (a few days ideally), then use a finer sandpaper (200-grit, for example) to smooth out any imperfections and prep it for the next application. This video explains the reasoning behind sanding wood after you prime it.

6. Paint the Guitar

The most common paint options are polyurethane, polyester, or nitrocellulose paints. Apply your base coat of pain using a brush or a spray can (if a can, then spray from about a foot or foot and a half away). Wait about 10 to 15 minutes, then paint the other side. Repeat this a few times to apply several coats. Set it in a ventilated area to dry for a couple days.

7. Smooth Out Paint With Sanding

After the paint has dried, you can do some fine sanding (with 400-grit sandpaper, for example). This will remove any imperfections from the painting process. Some people will insist they should sand in between coats of paint, but this isn't always necessary, as this video explains.

8. Spray Clear Lacquer

The next step is to give your paint job a fantastic gloss. You can do this by spraying a few coats of clear lacquer, waiting an hour and a half in between each coat. Once you've applied three or four coats, let the guitar dry for three weeks. This professional guitar explains what makes an ideal top coat.

9. Buff to a Nice Polished Shine

After the guitar is finished drying, get some polish, such as car polish, and use a cloth with circular motions to make your guitar shine. If you want to go all out, you can use multiple layers of polish at different grades like this buffing expert demonstrates.

9. Reattach Parts

After the painting and polishing is done, reassemble your guitar by reinstalling all of the interior electrical components, knobs, pickups, and reattaching the neck with your screwdriver.

A Visual Recap

Although the builder's steps vary, this video provides a quick recap of the major stages involved in painting a guitar: removal of old paint, prepping with primer, painting, and finishing.

Every Approach Has Unique Nuances

As you've likely noticed while reading these steps and watching the videos, everyone has slightly varied methods of going through the stages of painting. The basic phases are the same, but everyone develops a different approach to the details. You'll likely develop your own unique approach to the nuances.

How to Paint Your Guitar